Best Schools 2009: Is This the Best School In Philadelphia?

Cynics say urban education is hopeless. With some old-fashioned ideas, North Philly’s KIPP School is proving them wrong

AS YOU MIGHT expect, the last day of classes before summer break at the unusual school tucked into a former fur vault at the corner of Broad and Lehigh wasn’t filled with a lot of formal education. The students, nearly 300 fifth-through-eighth-graders, gathered as usual a little after 7 a.m. to eat breakfast in the fourth-floor room where the walls are decorated with hand-painted inspirational sayings, from Thomas Edison on hard work to Oprah Winfrey on character.

Dressed in uniforms — khaki pants and bright red or blue polo shirts — most of the kids were from the neighborhood, and they reflected its demographics. All but a handful were African-American or Hispanic, and a large majority came from families so poor that they qualify for government-subsidized school meals.

After breakfast, the students trooped outside for a morning in a nearby park, a rare square block of grass and shade in this rather forlorn neighborhood that spreads in the shadow of the giant empty hulk that once housed the Botany 500 factory. In the park, the students jumped into games of kickball and ran obstacle courses. They signed each other’s yearbooks. Normal stuff.

It only became clear later that morning, as the students reassembled in the school cafeteria, that unlike so many schools run by the Philadelphia School District in poor neighborhoods, this wasn’t the average child-warehousing center. While a few students got to step forward and receive prizes for achievement in mathematics (a calculator), social studies (a globe) and science (a bubble-gum-making machine, as a joke about the school’s strict policy forbidding the substance), nearly every student received a special medal to hang around his or her neck, recognition for resilience and grit.

And the fact is, at this school, nearly all of the students are beating the substantial odds against them. Of the 77 eighth-graders who were moving on to high school, 100 percent had been accepted to college preparatory schools, including St. Joe’s Prep. Overwhelmingly, and throughout the four grade levels, the students’ scores on standardized tests met or exceeded those of their peers — not only at other inner-city public schools, but even when compared to the more posh enclaves of suburbia.

This school, known as KIPP (short for “Knowledge Is Power Program”), is deliberately placed in one of Philadelphia’s most hardscrabble neighborhoods, and accepts children on a come-one-come-all lottery system. Observed from any angle, it’s one of the true bright stars in an educational constellation unfortunately filled with dwarves and black holes. An independently run public charter school aligned with a much-lauded and fast-growing nonprofit network that this year will have 82 schools operating in 19 states and the District of Columbia, KIPP has enthusiastic fans ranging from new Education Secretary Arne Duncan to best-selling journalist-cum-management-guru Malcolm Gladwell to gazillionaire businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates. Could this kind of school be the way to give a substantial lift to unprepared, under-supported children who each year are thrown in human waves at overwhelmed public schools? Is KIPP a model for how to make Philadelphia’s public school system work again?
“No other program has shown gains as great for as many poor children as KIPP,” says education columnist Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, who has written one book about KIPP and is working on another. Though it cost them and their families nothing except a lot more time and effort, and a willingness to buy into educational ideas so old-fashioned and commonsensical they seem wildly radical, these students starting summer vacation today might be walking out of the best school in Philadelphia.

“PEOPLE SAY WE’RE like a cult,” says Marc Mannella, an intense, athletic-looking 34-year-old who founded KIPP Philadelphia in 2003, served as its first principal, and is now its CEO. “But people say that about Disney, too.”

A week or so before promotion day, I spent a morning at KIPP with Mannella, trying to instantly develop a shorthand system so my notes could somehow keep up with his fast-paced stream of opinions, theories, statistics and jokes.

I arrived at the school just as the students were finishing breakfast and dispersing to their classrooms. From first appearances — the bright and clean walls and floors — and from my initial encounter with a polite and helpful young man who directed me to the principal’s office, I sensed something unique. When Bill Gates visited a KIPP school, he told a crowd during a speech not long ago, the dynamism in the classroom at first struck him as “very bizarre.” According to Gates, “The whole spirit and attitude in [KIPP] schools is very different than in the normal public school.”

Later, I asked a man whose business has taken him into a number of Philadelphia public schools and this KIPP school at Broad and Lehigh if there was a big difference. “Are you kidding?” he said. “The public schools are like prisons.”

When I finally found Mannella that morning, he seated me at a small round table in his office, which was crowded with sports paraphernalia. “Our kids come here knowing that it’s safe, warm and inviting — a clean, well-lighted place,” he said. “We can’t control what goes on out there, but in here, we can control it.” That said, Mannella added, “There’s no magic pixie dust at work here.”

The son of a biophysicist, Mannella studied biology and psychology at the University of Rochester, then signed up for a two-year stint with Teach for America, a very selective program that takes high-achieving graduates of good colleges, marches them through a short boot-camp in teaching techniques, then sends them to teach at schools in poor urban and rural districts.

Mannella ended up in West Baltimore, teaching seventh-grade science. “I got my butt handed to me,” he says. Still, teaching appealed to him. He moved to Philadelphia and got a job teaching at a charter school in Logan. Then he won a fellowship to be trained in school leadership and administration. It was sponsored by what was then a little-known charter-school organization with a funny acronym for a name. KIPP had been founded in the mid-’90s by two white-guy basketball buffs, like Mannella — Ivy League graduates and Teach for America alumni Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg.
Like any decent cult, KIPP has a founding myth, in this case codified in the book published earlier this year by Mathews. Its title is taken from the KIPP organization’s motto: Work Hard. Be Nice. How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.”

The promise of KIPP, the thing that makes it seem there must be at least a little pixie dust at work, is that throughout the organization’s growth, its schools have taken the same poor and unprepared students that most school districts woefully fail and lifted them from the lowest levels of competency and achievement to the highest. At its foundation, the stunningly radical educational approach KIPP takes is the injunction contained in the first part of its motto: Work Hard.

Students at KIPP schools — they call themselves Kippsters — are required to arrive at school at 7:30 a.m., and stay until 5 p.m. (3:30 on Fridays). Every other Saturday, there’s a half-day of school. A 14-day summer session is required of all students. KIPP administrators estimate that under this regime, the kids spend about 60 percent more time “on task” — that is, actually being taught. And what is taught is reading, writing, mathematics and critical thinking. In addition, it’s expected that teachers will assign two hours of homework each day. Though parents are strongly encouraged to help, KIPP just about mandates that students telephone their teachers in the evening with any homework questions; all teachers receive a school-issue cell phone and are on call until 9 p.m. every school night.

I spoke with one of KIPP Philadelphia’s success stories, a 15-year-old named Carley Burney-Heath who had just finished her freshman year at the very selective Westtown School, a boarding school in West Chester. In her time at KIPP, her school day began at five in the morning and ended after nine at night. “Homework first; happiness second,” she recalled. “One of the major differences between me and other kids around the neighborhood was they couldn’t quite comprehend why I was in school so long. And summer. And Saturday.”

At her new, fancy private boarding school, she said, “Academically, it’s harder. But because I’ve been at KIPP, it’s ultimately easier. I have skills from KIPP that helped me go through freshman year. It was a breeze.”

The first skill new Kippsters are drilled in is described by the acronym SLANT. Like more teaching time, it’s another jaw-dropping innovation that demands all students do the following in class:

Sit up straight.
Look and Listen.
Ask and Answer questions.
Nod your head.
Track the speaker with your eyes.

In his book, Jay Mathews reports that older people who visit KIPP schools often say they’re reminded of parochial-school culture in a bygone era, minus the nuns with rulers rapping knuckles.

Beyond the heavy instructional load and the strict discipline, the school ethos stresses personal responsibility. “You have to earn everything,” one student told me, “even your seat in class.” Fifth-graders begin KIPP sitting on the floor, and only when they can ace a quiz on the principles of SLANT are they allowed a seat at the table.

KIPP founders Feinberg and Levin did conjure up one magic trick: appealing to the budding consumer capitalist in all American kids by creating a monetary system based on KIPP dollars. Each child starts an account on the first day of school, and good behavior and academic achievement earn dollars that can be used at a school store. Students’ KIPP bank accounts help them qualify for elaborate yearly class trips that have become institutionalized throughout the KIPP system. Philadelphia fifth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and, among other things, recite Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech near the spot where it was originally delivered. Sixth-graders go hiking and camping in Utah’s Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. Seventh grade takes a tour of Southern cities significant in the civil rights movement. The eighth grade flies to Puerto Rico. The trips cost the students’ families $20 apiece. “It’s a way for us to extend the life experience beyond Broad and Lehigh,” says Marc Mannella.

These perks cost the school extra, of course. So do music and art instruction, an athletic program, and the extra salaries for teachers — 15 percent above the equivalent Philly teachers union scale — to compensate for the extra hours. In addition to state and federal funding, KIPP must find another $1,200 per student to meet its needs (though its total cost per student is still below that of the Philadelphia school district). That funding gap is filled by contributions from foundations, corporations and individuals. Most KIPP schools, or clusters of schools, have full-time fund-raising executives.

Not long before I met Mannella, he’d hooked a $4.6 million grant from the Charter School Growth Fund, a Colorado-based investment program. It will help fund his 10-year-plan to open nine more KIPP schools, including elementary and high schools, to form two clusters, one in North and one in West Philadelphia. If achieved as now conceived, the growth plan would give KIPP a total enrollment of about 4,400 students in 10 schools in Philadelphia.

All the quantifiable stuff — the test scores, school schedules, budgets — illustrates the seriousness with which KIPP takes the Work Hard part of its motto. Getting at the Be Nice part is much more difficult and slippery. We were talking about this when Mannella noticed a compact man with the look of a small but powerful wingback walking by his office, and jumped up to invite him in. Kaheem Evans lives in the neighborhood and has a daughter, a stepdaughter and a brother attending KIPP. He had worked for the school the previous year as a “character support specialist,” but there wasn’t enough money in the budget for the job this year, though Evans still hangs around the school and helps out when he can.
Evans sprawled in a chair and talked about KIPP for five minutes or so, and in that time he used the word “love” a half-dozen times. “They really love these kids here,” he said at one point, “and they’ll do anything they have to do to help them succeed.”

Later, I talked with an open-faced and sweet-tempered sixth-grader named Marquise, who told me, “At my other school, they didn’t care. At KIPP, they love you and care about you. Back at my old school, the teachers didn’t trust anybody. Here, they actually trust us with their phone number. It says a lot.”

“DO YOU KNOW what the year 2017 is?” asks the principal.

Two 10-year-old boys give her quizzical looks. One scans the ceiling as if the answer might be hidden there.

“If you come to KIPP,” says the principal, a self-assured, stylish and no-nonsense 27-year-old named Shawna Wells, “in the year 2017, you will go to college.”

It’s a rainy June evening, and Wells has driven out to Southwest Philly and parked her shiny little Mercedes sedan on a street lined with very modest two-story homes fronted by tumble-down porches. The street is pocked with empty lots, and a number of houses are boarded up. Wells is here to recruit students for her new KIPP school.

Wells, a Feasterville native, studied English at the University of Vermont. She joined Mannella’s team as a teacher, has served as KIPP’s local director of development, and this fall will be principal of KIPP’s new West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, which she’ll run out of classrooms leased from the school district at 59th and Baltimore.

The home she enters tonight to visit boys I’ll call Michael and Tariq displays signs of intractable poverty — threadbare chairs and couches, a carpet stained beyond hope, ceilings with gaping holes, working appliances propped on top of broken appliances. The living room has been made neat for her visit, but when Wells insists on sitting at the dining room table, the two boys and their mother scramble to clear off empty beer bottles and leftover food.

“You’re going to hear me say this over and over,” Wells says after everyone is seated. “Work Hard. Be Nice. There are no excuses. There are no shortcuts. We work hard, and we’re going to college. But we know we have a mountain to climb if we’re going to get there.” Few parents of KIPP students have attended, let alone graduated from, college, so the schools immerse their students in symbols of universities, from pennants festooning the halls to each homeroom named after its resident teacher’s alma mater.
In Jay Mathews’s fine book about the founding of KIPP, it’s striking how much of this educational idea — whether it qualifies as a cult or not — depended not on studies or curricula reviews or committee recommendations, but on two smart, ambitious and inordinately dedicated teachers who were willing to work their tails off. The rise of KIPP is an inspiring tale, but any peek into its future quickly forces a question: Is it truly possible to find enough teachers like that to replicate on a large scale?

To get some perspective after I first visited with Marc Mannella, I called an old friend who’d taught in a number of schools in the Philadelphia school district over a 30-year career. He’s very smart, a highly accomplished musician, and one of the most conscientious people I know. As I told him about the demands put on teachers by KIPP — the long days, the on-call evenings, the Saturdays, the mandatory summer school — he literally gasped. “Wow,” he said, “Wow! How long can people stay in a job like that?”

Mannella is enough of a CEO by now that he insists on labeling the issue a “challenge” rather than a problem. But he addresses it frankly. After KIPP opened in 2003, he admits, one of the four fifth-grade teachers quit during the first year, overwhelmed by the hours; another was let go. Their replacements didn’t return for a second year. Turnover among teachers in general is notoriously high, and according to KIPP’s national spokesman, Steve Mancini, KIPP’s seems higher because principals are given total control and there are only five schools with unions, so teachers who don’t fit the peculiar demands of KIPP’s philosophy can usually be removed at will. Mannella gave me figures that showed his overall teacher turnover rate since 2003 has been 27 percent, but it’s been improving steadily. In any case, KIPP has already started to address the issue by allowing job sharing and introducing other techniques to temper teacher burnout.

If you even dip your toe into the vast ocean of debate about why so many schools have failed so many of their students, particularly those in poor urban and rural areas, you realize there’s plenty of blame to go around. By now it’s commonplace to point to lazy, hidebound teachers and the unions that protect their short hours, long vacations and tenured incompetence. No doubt that theory has some validity, but as Mathews’s book on KIPP makes clear, it was two unionized public-school teachers who mentored and inspired Levin and Feinberg as they hatched the idea of KIPP.

So far, the Philadelphia teachers union has kept its distance from KIPP. “I sat next to [union president Jerry] Jordan at a conference,” Mannella reports, “and I believe he had no idea who I was.” (Jordan declined to comment on KIPP because the union doesn’t represent any teachers at the school.)
For her part, schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman has supported charter schools in general and KIPP in particular. But she has done it in rather bland bureaucrat-speak. “We look forward to working with KIPP,” Ackerman said in a prepared statement after the announcement of Mannella’s big grant to grow in Philadelphia, “to see how its commitment to expanding in Philadelphia can be aligned with our strategic plan’s emphasis on providing a range of quality school choices across our city.”

“There is nothing going on in this building that couldn’t be replicated,” Mannella says. “What we do is not proprietary. Nothing would make me happier than if the Philly school district copied us.”

THE LATE-SPRING LIGHT is fading by the time Shawna Wells finishes explaining the KIPP idea to the two 10-year-olds and their mother. She has brought a one-page contract with her. She reads her commitment aloud and signs it. She works with the boys to get through their section. Their mother reads her part.

KIPP skeptics say the school attracts children with parents who are more concerned and involved than the normal poor city family. I ask Mannella and Wells about that, and each insists that they recruit in public locations — often handing out leaflets at stores and churches — and accept anyone who applies, or run a lottery when there are more applicants than chairs. “If we’re skimming off the cream,” Mannella says, “we’re really not doing a very good job of it.”

Michael and Tariq certainly have a concerned mother. She looks over her part of the contract carefully and enthusiastically. “We make these commitments,” she reads aloud, “because we want to develop the character, knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in top-quality high schools, colleges and the competitive world beyond.” She smiles broadly at her boys and signs the paper.

“Congratulations!” Wells tells Michael and Tariq. “You’re Kippsters!” She pulls out a bright yellow KIPP t-shirt and her digital camera, and poses each boy, draping the shirt over his chest, then takes a picture.

“I’m going to show you this picture at your graduation from high school,” the teacher tells the boys. “I’m going to show it to you at your graduation from college. When you get married. You get the idea.”

Michael and Tariq hold the shirt in turn, their mother beaming nearby, and the sight of the boys’ excitement and pride at being part of a school is remarkable and kind of heartbreaking — heartbreaking because the mountain these kids must climb is so steep and menacing, and they seem so small and fragile.

When Bill Gates was giving his talk on improving education to a gathering of mostly well-to-do and well-educated people like himself, he dangled a statistic that hangs over children like Michael and Tariq. “If you’re low-income in the United States,” Gates said, “you have a higher chance of going to jail than you do of getting a four-year degree.” There are a few other odds against these two boys as they begin their climb that are particular to Philadelphia, like a public high-school graduation rate of less than 60 percent and an adult illiteracy problem that’s even worse.

I walk out of the house with Shawna Wells, and we stand on the wet West Philly street for a few minutes in a soft drizzle, chatting about the details of getting her new school started. I can’t stop thinking about the simple yet stunning promise she made to those two boys. It’s a promise that many more school leaders will have to make and fulfill — and soon — or the promise of all of us together will be lost.

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